WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, will convene a hearing titled “Recent Federal Actions to Expand Broadband: Are We Making Progress?” at 10:00 am on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. The hearing will review recent federal actions to expand broadband coverage, including the Federal Communications Commission’s actions on the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), the Re-Connect program, and moves to enhance federal coordination among these existing programs. It also will consider the measures directed at broadband expansion adopted by Congress in response to the pandemic, like the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) broadband grant programs for Tribes, unserved areas, and minority-serving institutions. Witnesses will have the opportunity to discuss the effectiveness of these programs in delivering connectivity to unserved and underserved Americans throughout the country.
- Dr. Christopher Ali, Associate Professor, Department of Media Studies, University of Virginia
- Mr. Justin Forde, Senior Director, Government Relations, Midco
- The Honorable Michael O’Rielly, Former Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission
- Mr. Jon Wilkins, Partner, Quadra Partners
*Witness list subject to change
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Full Committee (Hybrid)
This hearing will take place in the Russell Senate Office Building 253. Witness testimony, opening statements, and a live video of the hearing will be available on www.commerce.senate.gov.
In order to maintain physical distancing as advised by the Office of the Attending Physician, seating for credentialed press will be limited throughout the course of the hearing. Due to current limited access to the Capitol complex, the general public is encouraged to view this hearing via the live stream.
Chair Maria Cantwell
U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell
Opening Statement at Senate Commerce Committee Hearing entitled “Recent Federal Action to Expand Broadband: Are We Making Progress?”
Witnesses: Dr. Christopher Ali, Associate Professor, Department of Media Studies, University of Virginia
Mr. Justin Forde, Senior Director, Government Relations, Midco
The Honorable Michael O’Rielly, Former Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission
Mr. Jon Wilkins, Partner, Quadra Partners
March 17, 2021
Cantwell: Good morning. The Commerce Committee will come to order. I want to welcome our witnesses to today's hearing, “Recent Federal Action to Expand Broadband: Are We Making Progress?” We have a distinguished list of witnesses today to help us discuss what we've most recently done on a variety of broadband programs and access and increasing services, and also ideas and frameworks for how we should move forward. We welcome the witnesses today to be here.
The last year has been a very stark reminder about how important broadband connectivity is to Americans. As we’ve faced a pandemic, the internet has become the place to go to work, to attend school, to see friends, to help visit the doctors, and do many of the day-to-day things that we've all had to do in our lives. We've had to struggle throughout the pandemic, but imagine what life would have been like if we didn't have the internet during that time period. For millions of Americans, they don't have to imagine, because some of them really didn't have access to the internet.
I know we're going to hear from our witnesses today, like Dr. Ali, who's saying that the diagnosis and understanding of our most recent spending, that still there's 37% of rural Americans who could be paying more for internet connectivity than their counterparts in urban areas. That truly is unacceptable. We need our rural communities to be on a level playing field. And as our other witnesses, Mr. Forde, will be with us, I think virtually, will also point out that what we do next has to be done right, otherwise we could be in a situation where those who are currently lacking service could, after more spending, continue to lack service.
We cannot allow that reality to happen. If we're going to make investments, which I think we should, we need to make sure that we are really going to cut the digital divide. The stories that I hear from my home state in Washington are heartbreaking. A principal from the Columbia School District, near Spokane, recently described the impact of remote learning to her school, only to find that close to 70% of the students and their families lacked consistent access to broadband internet. Even those who did have access often lacked a strong enough signal for more than one of their children to attend virtual class, putting the parents in an impossible dilemma of who's going to go to school that day. And that problem didn't stop within the households either. Neighborhoods and multiple children trying to attend their digital classrooms, the signal failed to hold up, leaving them with many challenges. The principal's conclusion reads like a wake up call for policy in this space: “the need for appropriate internet and cellular coverage in Stevens County,” the principal said, "is now glaring at us like a neon light.” I couldn't agree more that it's glaring at us, and we need to get the next phase right.
Today we're going to review some of the recent extensive programs the FCC developed and implemented. the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and RDOF auction. Congress created the Re-connect broadband grant and loan program for rural counties. The NTIA administration is working on rules for Tribal and rural grant programs from the December COVID package. And the American Rescue Plan just recently signed by the President Biden, a new Treasury program targeted infrastructure.
I'm pretty sure all four witnesses will remind us today that coordination, something that Senator Wicker has been resolute about, and helped us get some initial language into previous laws – that the lack of coordination between these programs and federal agencies also needs to be strengthened, and I appreciate his previous legislation on that. So, I'm sure all witnesses are going to tell us that better coordination between these resources, also, is very important.
We'll also hear how the FCC predicted that it might take as much as $80 billion to close the digital divide. And I know that we're going to hear a lot of different inputs about that this morning. My hope is that the committee can develop a strong bipartisan framework to look at this issue as we move forward because, as our witnesses say, we can't afford to invest this money, and then still have communities without access moving forward. I hope that today we will hear from the broad depth of experience that each of our witnesses have, and they will talk about the necessary things before us on getting access to those underserved communities. But I do think that affordability, resiliency, redundancy, and security are also part of our agenda here. These are important tools for an information age. This is how we live and work, and socialize, and educate the next generation, so I hope we can get this right. Thank you all for being with us today. Now I'll turn to my colleague Senator Wicker for his opening statement.
Ranking Member Roger Wicker
Thank you, Senator Cantwell, thank you for convening this important hearing.
Good morning to our distinguished panelists, I look forward to your testimonies.
Last year brought challenges on a scale few could have imagined. The COVID-19 crisis changed life dramatically for almost every American. Many of our normal activities, such as work, school, and spending time with loved ones, moved online to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, including hearings of this committee. This generated a significant increase in broadband traffic and upended average internet usage patterns. According to one estimate, broadband traffic increased 51 percent last year.
The good news is that broadband networks in the United States performed well compared to other nations. Thanks in part to a light-touch regulatory framework that promotes investment in broadband infrastructure, U.S. broadband networks have been able to accommodate the sustained surge in online traffic and bandwidth consumption during the pandemic.
For its part, the FCC under the Trump Administration also took meaningful action to respond to the nation’s urgent broadband needs. This include the launch of the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, where providers voluntarily committed not to terminate broadband services for any residential or small business customers because they were unable to pay their bills. The FCC also adopted temporary modifications to existing Universal Service Fund (USF) programs to support rising demand for internet services.
Along with these measures, the Commission completed the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I Auction, which awarded $9.2 billion to providers – including over $495 million to providers in Mississippi – to deliver high-speed internet services to 5.2 million unserved homes and businesses across the country.
Today’s hearing is an opportunity for witnesses to discuss how the FCC and Congress can ensure that winning bidders of the RDOF auction are in fact able to meet their buildout obligations and deliver high-speed broadband services as promised.
The bipartisan CARES Act, enacted last March, and the bipartisan Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, enacted in December, also provided billions of dollars in federal resources to broadband-related programs. Together, these laws directed over $400 million to the FCC to expand access to telehealth services; $98 million to implement the Broadband DATA Act to improve the nation’s broadband maps; $1.9 billion to help small rural providers remove equipment from their networks that pose a national security threat; and $285 million to implement my Connecting Minority Communities Act, which provides connectivity assistance to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and minority communities through the newly established Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
These bipartisan laws also provided billions of dollars to the Department of Education in support of remote learning; billions to the FCC to help low-income Americans remain connected; hundreds of millions of dollars to the Department of Agriculture to connect rural areas; and over a billion dollars to NTIA to expand broadband to unserved areas and Tribal lands. Each of these efforts marked a critical step toward connecting all Americans and closing the digital divide.
Importantly, these bipartisan laws include meaningful guardrails to ensure that broadband resources are spent prudently and avoid the mistakes of past stimulus efforts that ultimately led to significant waste, overbuilding, and millions of Americans still left unconnected.
Of course, prudent spending starts with accurate broadband maps. Next week will mark one year since the bipartisan Broadband DATA Act was signed into law. The Broadband DATA Act directs the FCC to collect more precise data about where broadband is available and where it is not – and at what speeds. I am disappointed that the FCC is now projecting that it will take at least another year to comply fully with this law.
I hope witnesses will discuss how the delay in developing new maps will impact the efficacy of existing broadband programs as well as those created through last year’s COVID-19 stimulus to target resources to unserved areas and communities in need.
Coordination and information sharing among federal agencies responsible for administering broadband deployment programs are also essential to expanding availability. My Broadband Interagency Coordination Act was passed on a bipartisan basis and signed into law as part of last year’s COVID-19 stimulus package. This will require the FCC, NTIA, and USDA to coordinate the distribution of federal funds for broadband deployment to prevent duplication and other mismanagement. And I thank the Chair for acknowledging our mutual interest in this subject matter.
I look forward to witnesses discussing how coordination among these agencies can reduce overbuilding of existing public and private broadband investments.
I would also point out that recently enacted legislation tasks the Treasury Department, the FCC, states, and localities with administering billions in broadband resources, without any safeguards to ensure proper handling of funds. For example, there are no requirements that the Treasury Department coordinate with the FCC or NTIA to prevent subsidized overbuilding, duplication of broadband benefits, and other wasteful spending.
I am sure witnesses will want to discuss how this might impact ongoing efforts to provide universal broadband access.
Finally, as most of the broadband resources Congress authorized over the past years remain unspent, I hope witnesses will discuss how we can fund future broadband initiatives most effectively in order to address the remaining disparities in access to quality and reliable communications services throughout the United States.
So again, Madam Chair, a very important hearing with very informed witnesses and I look forward to participating.
Witness Panel 1
Mr. Justin FordeSenior Director of Government RelationsMidco
The Honorable Michael O'RiellyFormer CommissionerFederal Communications Commission
Mr. Jon WilkinsPartnerQuadra Partners
Dr. Christopher AliAssociate ProfessorDepartment of Media Studies, University of Virginia